October 16th is always a sentimental day for me. What once used to be a day like any other is now stained with awful memories of the accident that took one of motor racing’s greatest talents in Dan Wheldon. I write this eulogy every year to justify why six years later, I can’t allow myself to forget Dan Wheldon.
I was not yet a racing fan in 2005 when Dan won his first Indianapolis 500. But according to everything I’ve been told, that was something of a hollow victory for Dan. He was hardly acknowledged as the race winner, because so much media attention had gone towards Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500. 2011 was something special. Wheldon did not have a car that should have won the race that year, and he was mostly anonymous all race long. The centennial anniversary race of the Indianapolis 500 came down to pit strategy, and in the closing laps, Wheldon found himself in second place. The guy that was leading on the last lap, J.R. Hildebrand, oversteered around Charlie friggin’ Kimball and socked the wall in the final turn. Wheldon, who had been about half a straightaway back, passed Hildebrand’s crippled machine in the final thousand feet of the race and stole the victory. Wheldon’s victory should be considered something of an upset, but for Wheldon, for the first time, it was his victory. Likewise, for the first time he had a family to celebrate it with. So when the offer came through for Wheldon to run the season finale and try to win the race from the last starting position for a purse of one million dollars, you couldn’t blame him for wanting to give it a go while his confidence was riding high.
I was thirteen years old when it happened. I was not watching the Las Vegas race that Wheldon was killed in. I don’t remember why. First I heard of Wheldon’s accident was on a message board that I frequented, and it was not until much later that I saw the ABC broadcast of the race that day. Something that always struck me was Wheldon’s poise during pre-race and the pace laps. He was so ecstatic and ready to go. He was going to win that race, and you’d be damned if you were going to stop him. And it’s all so eerie now, looking back on it. Wheldon was talking to the ABC broadcast booth during the pace laps, and he said, “what a way to go out”. And nobody, not one of us knew it then that those words were about to take on a whole new meaning.
Ten laps later, Wheldon had worked his way past several cars and now was running solidly mid-field. ABC was showing Wheldon’s onboard camera crossing the front chute approaching Turn 1. A few cars got together just up the road. ABC cuts to a wider shot of the first turn. Seconds later, I watched helplessly as Wheldon’s car launched off of another, somersaulted in mid-air once, and slammed the catchfence cockpit-first. Deafening silence followed. The world went blank. Even after knowing that Wheldon was gone in that moment, you could feel the air of consternation start to set in over the speedway. The atmosphere of brimming excitement was replaced with panic. Several minutes pass before IndyCar CEO Randy Barnard finally reveals to a crowded press room the news that nobody wanted to hear – Dan Wheldon had been fatally injured in the accident in Turn 1.
The tributes followed. The effect was visible on the drivers. They were teary-eyed in their interviews, trying to explain that the risk of death was an inherent part of motor racing, but inside they couldn’t care less. They talked about Dan, and the feelings they had towards him. The race was abandoned and stripped from the record books. The remaining drivers not involved in the Turn 1 melee fired up their cars for five laps around Las Vegas Motor Speedway at pace speed in three-abreast formation, while bagpipes blared and the scoring pylon was blanked except for Dan’s #77. And finally, ABC anchor Marty Reid’s closing words before broadcast sign-off, “People ask me why always end with ‘Until we meet again’. It’s because goodbye is always so final. Goodbye, Dan Wheldon.”
At the time, all of this was completely foreign to me. A death of this magnitude wasn’t something I had ever experienced before. And in the hours, the days after Wheldon’s death, all the controversy regarding that race weekend, all the context were replaced immediately with thoughts of Dan and the family he left behind. His wife Susie a widow, his children Sebastian and Oliver now fatherless. I heard my friends, my fellow racing fans reminiscing and commiserating about Dan. Drivers and fans from all over were extending their sympathies. This bright, flamboyant, luminous personality that Dan exhibited had suddenly vanished, and all of us were left with the faded memories of his triumphs and the impressions he had on those around him. You couldn’t help but realize the dumb irony, that just months ago we were celebrating Dan’s surprise victory in the Indianapolis 500. And that’s when it all hit me. In the days following, people would try to talk to me about the accident, but I didn’t want to say anything. Everything was pointless, nothing mattered.
That’s what Dan’s death means to me even now, six years later. It was a proverbial loss of innocence, both as a person and as a racing fan. It was the first time I could adequately remember what happened when somebody died, and the first time I could remember how I felt about it. What Dan’s death taught me is that we’re all mortal. Our hobbies and our jobs are just something to tide us over en route to the grave. Dan’s line of work was more dangerous than most. He accepted the risk and paid the ultimate price for it. But the way he lived his life; the profound affect he had on his friends and family reminds me that in this life, all we have are the connections we make. When you meet your end, you still survive through all the ones you’ve loved. The way you interact with those around you reflects on what they will remember about you when you’re gone.
To this day, I have been fortunate enough to have never seen a fatal accident in motor racing on live television. And yet, whenever I think about death, inside and out of racing, it’s always Dan that comes to mind. Death is futile, and it happens over and over again. And everytime I’m faced with it, the feeling I have reflects what I felt in regards to that sunny October day six years ago.
For now and all times, rest in peace Dan Wheldon.